Virus mutation is a process during replication (growth) of the virus where changes occur in the genetic make-up. A mutation can be beneficial or deleterious for the virus growth or may have no impact at all.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists are discussing different effects of virus mutation and declaring virus mutation as one of the options for the end of the COVID-19 pandemic like SARS (previous coronavirus disease), which disappeared in 2003 due to mutation in the previous coronavirus. Interestingly, a specific strain of current coronavirus (officially SARS-CoV-2) having mutation in the D614G region of the virus spike protein (which helps the virus to enter into human cells), appears to be spreading in the latest outbreaks in Southeast Asia.

The name D614G means a change in amino acid from D (aspartic acid) to G (glycine) at position 614 of coronavirus. Recent data suggests that coronavirus with this mutation has become the most widespread strain globally.

The virus originated in Europe and then came to Southeast Asia after natives returned to their countries from Europe. The important aspect of this mutation is that it has made the virus more infectious but it less deadly according to some reports.

Dr Paul Tambyah, a senior consultant of National University of Singapore reported that there are studies showing propagation of the D614G mutation in different parts of the world with decrease in death rates which indicates that it is less lethal. As he said, “maybe that’s a good thing to have a virus that is more infectious but less deadly”.

Usually, viruses like to become less virulent as they mutate because it is in the interest of the virus to infect more people without killing them as it depends on the host for food and shelter. According to WHO, this mutation spread in Europe and USA as well and no evidence has been found to relate this mutation with the severity of COVID-19.

Noor Hisham Abdullah, Director General of Health in Malaysia, reported the detection of coronavirus with the D614G mutation in two recent clusters in Malaysia. He described that coronavirus with D614G mutation is 10 times more infectious than the original strain of those isolated in Wuhan.

Many vaccines against coronavirus are in clinical phases. As these vaccines target spike protein of coronavirus, therefore, there are some concerns regarding the effectiveness of these vaccines on this D614G mutated coronavirus. Although this mutation exists in the spike protein, vaccines are targeting different regions of these spike proteins which are important for our immune system. Therefore, there are less chances that this mutation will result in vaccine failure.

Pakistan was in danger in June as the cases were increasing every day and due to weak health structure, huge population and combined family system, a catastrophic situation was predicted by different sources. But surprisingly, after a few weeks, there is a drastic reduction in cases and hospitals which were overwhelmed, seems empty.

As the situation of coronavirus is improving in Pakistan, do we have D614G mutated virus or another mutated virus which is not only less infectious but less lethal as well? We need to analyse the current viral strains in Pakistan.

Although there are concerns about the validity of the data, the number of deaths have certainly decreased. A study showed that the number of burials in Miani Sahib graveyard was far higher in June as compared to previous years but it has turned to normal in August.

Another reason could be the young population of Pakistan. According to a UNDP report of UNDP, around 64 percent of the population of Pakistan is below the age of 30. Moreover, only 4 percent of the Pakistani population is 65 or above as compared to 20-25 percent of developed countries. This could be a major reason that we have around 6000 deaths due to coronavirus in the 220 million population whereas the UK experienced more than 41000 deaths in the 67 million population.

Pakistan has performed far better than expectations, but it does not mean that we are completely out of danger. There is a risk of a second wave of the virus as we have seen in some parts of Europe. Therefore, it is very important to improve the tracking system to detect new spikes in cases.

Scientists are trying to find more mutations which support the virus in escaping the immune response. They want to keep an eye on the evolution of coronavirus to predict the mutations which are important for survival or elimination of the virus.